The problem with Bono on American Idol

I didn’t know poverty could be turned into a reality show. But that’s what happened April 24 & 25 on American Idol, the wildly popular TV show that captures over 30 million viewers a week. The special “Idol Gives Back” focused on poverty in the U.S. and in Africa, challenging America to make charitable contributions. The series was lavish: cameos by numerous celebrities, Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell in Africa, Randy Jackson in New Orleans, Paula Abdul at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and, finally, a pitch by U2’s Bono. By all appearances it was a great evening, but I found the broadcast unsettling.

The reality show
It was hard to view the needs of New Orleans’ flood victims and children in Africa and then have Ellen DeGeneres and others crack jokes. While Ben Stiller and Jack Black tried to upstage one another the six finalists attempted to convince us of their patriotism, talent and compassion. Segue: Seacrest comforting a grieving orphan in Africa with tidbits of pop psychology, “There, there, let it out; it’ll be alright.” There was such discontinuity between the seriousness of the topic (poverty) and the purpose of the show (entertainment). I’ve never thought of poverty as “sexy,” but this was close. Can a reality show/telethon/celebrity fest can treat the topic with the depth and dignity it deserves?

Narcissistic humanitarianism
Another frustration comes from a kind of selfish benevolence that permeates our culture. Can making charitable contributions be self-centered? Yes. We feel good when we help others—and that’s the problem in this age of voluntarism and philanthropy. We are motivated by our own good feelings, not by a sense of responsibility to a larger cause. Narcissism is defined as a preoccupation with the self and one’s own self-importance, along with the desire for admiration. There certainly was a lot of that on Idol.

The church plays this game, as well. I have seen and been a part of many mission trips that have a stated purpose of helping the people they are going to minister to. Team members feel good when they return home, but missionaries often report the groups they host are loud, arrogant, culturally insensitive and more trouble than they are worth.

The most troubling thing about this episode of Idol is that it focused entirely on charity. Even the two-minute clip of Bono, an activist known as a committed Christian and a deeply informed humanitarian, felt thin. The reason: Bono didn’t deliver his trademark message. Either by his own choice or because it got edited out or because the Fox network asked him not to, he didn’t say:

“This is not about charity, it’s about justice.”

The entire evening was a pitch for charity. It was a call for money. DeGeneres could throw $100,000 into the pot and challenge her “rich friends” because they, along with most Americans, believe that will solve the problems. Is this just a new form of colonialism, a new version of “the white man’s burden” another example of how Americans think they can fix the world with power and money? Justice requires a change of lifestyle and beliefs sometimes counter to the status quo. We need a partnership with Africans, not charity for Africans. The issues that Bono’s ONE Campaign addresses (debt relief, fair trade, AIDS) were nearly ignored, I suspect because they might seem too political.

I’m almost surprised Bono and the ONE Campaign aligned with this event. Their mantra has been, “We don’t want your money, we want your voice.” This is why Bono’s understanding of African poverty is deeper than the typical celebrity championing a good cause. He knows what is required is not more money, but a change in the system and in the way people think about poverty. He knows his voice is only one in a larger movement to live as global neighbors (the ONE Campaign has over 2.5 million members and is growing rapidly). Justice, particularly biblical justice, requires we act rightly, love mercy and walk in humility (Micah 6:8).

In the end American Idol generated more than $60 million dollars for charity and over 100,000 people signed up for the ONE Campaign, but the effort was only a partial success because a celebrity reality show does not present the underlying issues of poverty and justice. That’s the problem with Bono on American Idol. Though it’s really not his problem, it’s ours.

Tim Neufeld is professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno Pacific University. He also serves on a pastoral staff in Fresno and is pursuing doctoral studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.